The Big Interview: Oil tycoon and philanthropist Sir Ian Wood

He is one of Scotland’s most high-profile names in business, an oil tycoon who rode the crest of the North Sea boom and amassed a family fortune that was earlier this year estimated to be closing in on £1.8 billion.
'I quite enjoy what Im doing, and Im quite good at what Im doing,' the oil veteran says. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.'I quite enjoy what Im doing, and Im quite good at what Im doing,' the oil veteran says. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
'I quite enjoy what Im doing, and Im quite good at what Im doing,' the oil veteran says. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

Now dedicating a large proportion of his energy to philanthropic work, Sir Ian Wood explains that he was recently reading a book by another renowned altruistic Scottish businessman, Andrew Carnegie, whose legacy includes creating 2,500-plus libraries after benefiting from such a service as a young man.

As part of events marking the 100th anniversary of the death of the Dunfermline-born industrialist last month, Wood was announced as one of the recipients of the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy – and indeed the only European on the list.

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The Aberdonian will collect his medal in New York in October, having said when the accolade was revealed that his own work for good causes was “at least partly inspired by” Carnegie, as he empathised with his story. “I hope he would be pleased with a fellow Scot, albeit one from a different generation, who has achieved a tiny fraction of his accomplishments in increasing access, reducing inequity and giving people the tools and platforms to help themselves.”

Also contributing to Wood’s desire to make a positive contribution was a visit early on to South Africa, witnessing the work of a free clinic (“a total eye-opener”) and businesspeople who were giving something back. “I don’t think I even recognised that I was privileged,” he says. “I guess it made me determined that whatever I did, I would do it really well and get some good out of that for other people.”

That he did, although on leaving school he was initially “determined” to be a doctor.

But after completing a psychology degree, mulling over a subsequent move into medicine and psychiatry specifically, he stepped in to help his father, who suffered poor health, with his fishing company which had roots dating back to the 1890s.

Joining in 1964, this was meant to be a temporary move for Wood junior, but “I discovered that I could make things happen, that I could change things”. By the time he vacated the chief executive seat at what was by then oil services giant Wood Group, more than 40 years later, it was a FTSE 100 firm with 43,000 employees in 52 countries. It now has 60,000 workers in 60 countries, having, since his reign, acquired Amec Foster Wheeler for £2.2bn in 2017.

His time at Wood Group reiterated the need to help the disadvantaged, as he would visit major African national oil corporations in their “beautiful big offices… and then go out and be driven maybe ten miles into the country and see abject poverty and misery – that seemed so wrong to me.”

Such experiences helped spark the creation of The Wood Foundation in 2007 – after he stepped down as Wood chief executive in 2006 but before he gave up the role of chairman in 2012 (retiring “was a tough decision but it was the right thing to do”).

The organisation, which he chairs, came into being to improve livelihoods in the UK and East Africa. Applying “venture philanthropy” principles, it focuses on three key areas, namely making markets work for the poor in Sub-Saharan Africa; and in Scotland both developing young people and facilitating economic and education development.

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Trustees include his wife, Lady Helen, and son Garreth – and projects include the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative, which in 2008 brought to Scotland the concept that was established by Mac Cosmetics founder Julie Toskan-Casale in Canada. The scheme sees young people connect with local grassroots charities, and Wood says that many participants are for the first time exposed to problems in their community, and can do something about it.

“That along with tea are my two favourite activities,” he says, with the foundation also working with smallholder tea farmers in Rwanda and Tanzania to create sustainable change, attracting investors such as Unilever.

The charitable trust has also committed to bankrolling – to the tune of £62 million over ten years – private-sector-led economic development body Opportunity North East (ONE), amid a bid to ensure that, “having had a great benefit from oil and gas over a long period of time, it doesn’t suddenly have an economy that falls apart”.

ONE calls itself the private sector’s response to the “obvious and serious” long-term economic challenges facing the area and helping it avoid becoming a “museum” of the oil and gas era.

Few can be unaware of the downturn in the sector as the oil price tanked from a peak of $112 (£91) per barrel in 2012, and while there have been green shoots of progress, trade body Oil & Gas UK said in its Workforce Report 2019 that the sector supported the employment of 463,900 people in 2014, but this fell to 259,900 last year, “significantly lower than previously estimated”.

ONE said at its annual event in June that it would be enhancing its investment in the transition of the North-East from an oil capital to a global energy capital, and had committed £14.2m, for which it had secured £42m of match funding, over the previous three years amid the pursuit of growth in the region’s other key sectors. These are digital; food, drink and agriculture; life sciences; tourism; and stimulating the entrepreneurial environment.

ONE also led the development of ONE Tech Hub, having teamed up with tech incubator CodeBase. The new facility set out to be the new home for the digital tech and entrepreneurship community in the North-East, opening in June after a £1.5m cash injection.

But the Wood family has also been involved in a perhaps more prosaic but highly appreciated venture – to create a free multi-storey car park at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary with a £10m donation. Wood notes that it was his wife’s project, “and, of all the things that we’ve done, that’s the one that’s had most manifest public appreciation”.

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However, the businessman’s bid for an overhaul of Union Terrace Gardens in the Granite City, and for which he was willing to give £50m, was ultimately vetoed by councillors, a move he previously described as a “tragedy”.

A new £25m revamp has now been approved, “not in any way with my involvement”, he stresses, having withdrawn his offer in 2014. “I never, ever cry over spilt milk. If something doesn’t work, you just go on and move ahead.”

His strategy has seen him awarded, among others, a knighthood in 1994 and a GBE (Knight Grand Cross) in 2016. Last year, he was formally installed as a Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle by The Queen.

Wood also chaired the 2014 Commission on Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, and is currently chancellor of Robert Gordon University.

He also authored the major Maximising Economic Recovery UK Report, and is founding chairman of the Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC), which aims to help maximise economic recovery from the UK Continental Shelf, anchor the supply chain in the North-East, and foster innovation in the region.

It was established in October 2016 with £180m as part of the Aberdeen City Region Deal. Wood estimates he now spends half of his time on Wood Foundation activities and the other half on ONE business, which includes a range of energy priorities.

“We’re into a different era – we’re into quite an exciting new era, which is maximise the oil and gas we’ve got, maximise the focus on renewables,” states Wood. He cites the potential of offshore wind, for example. “I honestly believe most people now, certainly most people in the oil and gas industry, completely accept the principles of climate change and accept that we’ve got to do everything we possibly can to reduce damage to the environment.”

Noting that he has children and grandchildren, he adds: “Clearly I’ve a passion to ensure that we don’t damage our environment.”

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He has no issue with environmental activist Greta Thunberg (“I don’t have a problem with a young lady who feels very strongly about it making her views known strongly”), but has less time for disruptive protests. “We’ve all got to be constructive. We need to focus on what’s possible and what’s achievable to maximise renewables and minimise carbon, while ensuring we continue to meet the country’s energy demand.”

The rhetoric of some climate change groups was also in his crosshairs when he gave the keynote address at the recent Offshore Europe conference in Aberdeen, saying they are unrealistic about how much energy can feasibly come from renewables.

He is also chairman of fishing company JW Holdings, which was in the 1980s separated from Wood’s engineering activity.

“I quite enjoy what I’m doing, and I’m quite good at what I’m doing,” the oil veteran says, citing homeless-focused Social Bite boss Josh Littlejohn as an example of an entrepreneur he admires.

As for how best to bring about positive change, Wood believes there are two ways you can really help, one being a social enterprise that gets the community involved. “I think you can probably do an awful lot better if you can make an awful lot of money – and give it away.”